10 August 2006


A year ago yesterday, Judy and I spent much of our 25th anniversary on one of the historic Columbia River Highway walking trails. For our 26th anniversary, yesterday, we chose an urban variant: First we parked at OMSI. After buying something from their gift shop and leaving a message for a friend there, we set out on the Eastside Esplanade path along the Willamette River. We walked to the Burnside Bridge, crossed the river, walked ten blocks west, and strode bravely into Powell's bookstore. (Bravery is required there to resist temptation and ward off bankruptcy.) I added another couple of urban miles by making an additional loop to Way of a Pilgrim bookstore, specializing in Eastern Orthodox books and icons, at NW 21st and Hoyt. Reunited at Powell's, we escaped from there only $30 poorer. We returned to OMSI via Tom McCall Waterfront Park and the Hawthorne Bridge.

Inevitably, I've been thinking about how fast these 26 years have gone by, but also how much has happened in that swift passage of time. At the beginning, in 1980, the future meltdown of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is nearly unimaginable, and the Cold War (with the U.S. boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics) is a dominant paradigm. Also that year: El Salvador unravels further with the killing of Archbishop Romero; and Iraq attacks Iran, opening their savage eight-year war. In U.S. politics, the unholy alliance between evangelical Christian elites and right-wing politicians solidifies, as Bible-believing Christians are urged to favor the nominally religious Reagan over the evangelical incumbent Carter. A few years later, the names have all dramatically changed, but so many of the patterns are the same.

How much has changed in the Quaker world? In his talk at the 1976 Friends World Committee triennial meeting in Hamilton, Ontario, T. Canby Jones noted a trend of convergence, without (if I remember correctly) using the word: evangelical Friends were becoming more interested in silence and social justice, and liberal Friends were becoming more interested in theology and the Bible. We traded amusing anecdotes about people in one branch being totally unaware of the existence of Friends in other branches—not much has changed there, except that the Internet is a much cheaper way of exchanging anecdotes and reinforcing superiority than conference attendance.

I kept the July 1980 issue of Friends Journal because of an article by Parker Palmer, "Quakers and the Way of the Cross." He says,
I realize that the Christian story holds little merit for some Quakers, that within the Quaker community many are struggling to find new myths and symbols and images to bring meaning to a "post-Christian" world. And yet, I do not know how else to speak of my experience in life except in terms of crucifixion and resurrection. I look around me, and within me, and find the devastation caused by the threat of nuclear war; the relentless oppression of the weak and the poor; the impact of an econmy fueled by greed and a politics which relies on the tools of cercion and violence. And as I see these things, I find myself unable to speak of them as mere "social problems." I can only speak of a continuing crucifixion, a crucifixion of the Christ within every woman and man. And as I see these things, I am unable to find ultimate home in a multiplication of projects and programs for "social change." However important these things may be, I am compelled to reach deeper for hope, beyond our own works into the mystery of resurrection which only God can work among us.
Palmer continues with a sensitive walk through the outward and inward "stations of the Cross" that illuminate these opening words—stations and soul-movements such as recognition, resistance, acceptance, affirmation, and liberation.

Projects and programs will continue to come and go, along with the temporary heroes and villains who animate them. Their impermanence does not make them unimportant, it just makes me more concerned to locate them in a deeper story; in fact, in the ancient story of oppression, resistance, and liberation, of crucifixion and resurrection.

I even dare to think that the Quaker story must stop inflating itself and take a more modest and supplementary place. After three decades of idealistic Quaker-boosting, I am growing weary of cycles of complacency, gloom, and timid revival. I want to be watching and joining God's work in the world, not caught in some self-absorbed eddy. We Quakers have at least one important function in the wider Christian world—demonstrating to ourselves and everyone that church really can be as simple as a community of people who want to live with Jesus at the center, helping each other work out the processes and ethical consequences of that life. But we don't even do that one thing if we're so endlessly fascinated (or irritated) by our specialness.

None of that specialness need go to waste, actually. It's not the stuff of community that bothers me; we need to furnish our home with the furniture of shared references, models, doctrines, decisions, controversies. But I want that overstuffed home to be an incubator for people who will collectively have the spiritual sensitivity and prophetic courage to put the highest priority on the needs of people who've never heard of us, rather than on the perfection of our internal categories. Then today's projects and programs will take their place (as many already have, no doubt) in the ancient drama of crucifixion and resurrection.

Two songs: Last Sunday, at Reedwood, we sang a chorus by Martin Reardon that included these words:
Shout to the earth His name
Let the whole world know His name
That Jesus is alive and He reigns on high
Shout to the earth His name.
A few hours later, at Ministerios Restauración, we were singing these words from Juan Carlos Alvarado:
No basta solo con cantar.
No basta solo con decir.
No es suficiente solo con querer hacer.
Es necesario morir.

(By itself, singing isn't enough; by itself, saying isn't enough; it's not sufficient just to want to do; it's necessary to die.)
Going back to "Shout to the earth," I have friends who would rather die than sing songs like that; maybe that's why they might need to sing that song just once, and try to understand why, for some of us, in some sense, that is the whole business of discipleship. (Let the whole world know His name, not because we Christians, we Quakers, are better than anyone else—we're not—but because in that name we speak truth, we resist, we create, we sing, we love.) And I have friends who seem to think that singing choruses with the right words is all there is to being a Christian. Of course, they're wrong; you also have to write a brave-sounding blog.

I thank Sean's Russia Blog for a link to this interesting article by Charlie Ganske on Russia, the Middle East, and the complicated influences of oil prices on Russian-American relations. Another case of "the more things change...."?


Robin M. said...

Thank you for your apt perspective.

Congratulations to you and Judy for holding it all together for 26 years!

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Robin!

Chris M. said...

I've been sitting with this post a few days to come back to. I don't have much to add except to say thank you for once again engaging us with what matters most. I like this particular aspect as you expressed it: "to have the spiritual sensitivity and prophetic courage to put the highest priority on the needs of people who've never heard of us, rather than on the perfection of our internal categories." Amen!

Johan Maurer said...

Joe--thanks for your thoughtful reflections. I hope you'll keep helping us with spiritual diagnoses from your perspective. It's the silver lining I'm clinging to when contemplating your "distance."

Chris--given your own work, I can see why you'd particularly care about developing a capacity to meet the needs of people who've never heard of us. Thanks!

As I look over the last few months of posts, I see that I've brought up worship songs more than once. I'm getting a new sense of the importance of singing in worship, whether spontaneously or corporately. It's not that singing is less cerebral, as we're sometimes told. That may be true, but it certainly doesn't exclude thinking. Singing and music are just a different dialogue, touching our hearts in a different place, reminding us that text and debate aren't everything.

Robin M. said...

For some reason it is comforting rather than discouraging to know that this is not the first time Quakers have been excited about convergence, whether they used that term or not. I'm pleased to be part of my generation's forays into the same territory.

Johan Maurer said...

It should be comforting rather than disturbing. For one thing, T. Canby Jones is not getting younger. For another, I have always valued having "elders" in the faith. When I was eighteen years old and just starting my nonviolent path, I was enormously encouraged that being against war was not an invention of my generation--in fact that it had ancient and honorable roots. For me, it was a major comfort to realize that the powers that be, who always seemed to have a monopoly on conventional wisdom and establishment credibility, have been under challenge from year one.